The chime of sixth hour the next morning was followed by a scream that echoed up and down the dormitory hallway. “WHAT?! My father won’t hear of it! You will do NO SUCH THING!” The screamer punctuated her pronouncement with a door slam. Moments later, Tia heard a light, quick knock at her door, so soft she could almost have imagined it.
Throwing back the covers, she shuffled to the door and opened it to see a girl who looked to be about her same age, clutching something to her chest. They peered at each other with mutual curiosity, Tia’s hazel eyes meeting the girl’s green ones. A tumble of golden blonde curls frizzed like an aura around the girl’s shoulders, and she was clad in form-fitting dark brown dance clothes that left no curve of her slim body to the imagination. Tia couldn’t help but envision herself in the girl’s eyes: a long white nightgown hand-me-down from Natlin, brown hair matted and tangled from an anxious, restless night, sleep crusting at the corners of her eyes.
“I’m Tia,” she managed, swimming away from her thoughts back to reality.
“Wynna,” the girl said, dipping her head in acknowledgment. “I’m taking you around today.”
“Who…? What was that all about?” Tia gestured toward the hallway.
The girl squirmed at the question, chewing at her lip. “No time to explain right now,” she said finally. She thrust the things she was holding at Tia. “Breakfast’s in fifteen minutes. Here are some clothes and slippers. You have hairpins, yes? Hair in a bun, tight at the crown of your head. Come out in the hallway once you’re ready, and we’ll go together. Oh, and bathrooms are down the hall—that way,” she pointed, then hustled away into a room a few doors down. A few girls poked their heads out from their rooms and gawked at Tia as she followed Wynna’s retreating figure with her eyes.
Tia closed the door, shutting away their curious gazes, and unfolded the dark brown dance clothes. The next few minutes were spent doing an awkward shimmy to get the clothes on properly, and even when she had them on right she still only felt half-dressed. There was no time to worry about immodesty, though; she could hear girls in the hallway heading to breakfast. She slipped on the leather slippers and grimaced when they immediately started chafing at her ankles. It seemed the whole world was conspiring to be uncomfortable for her today.
A few minutes later she stood in the hallway waiting for Wynna as the rest of the dormitory funneled down the corridor to breakfast. All the girls who swept past her, even the little six-year-olds, walked with light, floaty steps, their bodies long and muscles toned. The effect was inhuman, and she felt a wave of apprehension. Compared to these nymphal dancers, she was positively stumpy.
How long could it take for Wynna to finish getting ready? Everyone who walked past was staring at her unabashedly. One girl with pale blue eyes, an upturned nose, and inky black hair fastened back with a small, shining silver comb even turned to look at Tia, then thrust her head high and swept on past, her expression verging on hostility.
Wynna finally exited her room and motioned for Tia to follow. She’d somehow managed to tame her blonde mane of hair, and now she floated down the hallway beside her charge, posture perfect and each footstep precise. After an uncomfortable, silent moment, Wynna said, “I’m to be your guide for the day, so you can get used to academy life. You’re sixteen, right?”
“Me too. Everyone studies with others their own age, so you’ll be training with the rest of the tenth-years. There are thirty students in each year.”
“When did you join the academy?” Tia asked.
“When I was seven. But a lot of students do come here when someone needs to be replaced.” Wynna caught Tia’s inquisitive look. “Say you’re eight, and you can’t keep up with the other eight-year-olds. They’ll search for someone from outside the academy who’s more talented to take your place, and then you’re dismissed.”
She gulped. “Sounds like a difficult life.”
Wynna drew a breath as if to answer, then gave her a sideways glance, as if making a decision. After a long moment, she said, “I mean, it’s that way for the majority of students. I’ve been here for nine years, and it’s always cutthroat. Less so lately, because we’re in tenth year, so we’re about to graduate into the company.” She lowered her voice. “But some people come from Hygot’s more distinguished families and find their time at the academy a bit… smoother. But I guess that’s changing.” Another pause. “That’s what the hubbub was about back there.”
Tia frowned, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, the academy’s patrons only allow the school to admit a certain number of students of each age. Thirty students in each class, like I said. It keeps the academy exclusive.”
Her mind was racing. “So because I’m joining the academy…” She gasped.
The girl gave a grim nod. “That’s right, one of us has to leave. And Master Maaj has been pushing lately for the weaker students from Hygot’s elite families to be dismissed from the academy, so everyone basically already knows who’s out.” Wynna sighed. “I know you didn’t ask for it, but you’ve just made yourself an enemy.”
She’d been a bit concerned about making friends at the academy, but the notion of making enemies hadn’t ever crossed her mind. Nonetheless, her gloomy thoughts faded away once they entered the dining hall. Bright, merry sunbeams shone down from the hall’s high windows. Long wooden tables filled the room, and gigantic tapestries decorated every wall. But it wasn’t just the grandeur of the dining hall that distracted Tia from her recent, uneasy revelation. All she could stare at, slack-mouthed, was the students sitting at the tables, chattering happily as they dug into breakfast.
Boys. There were boys here too. Somehow she’d only ever envisioned female students at the Royal Dance Theater, probably because she’d only ever seen one dance performance—the exclusively female Queen’s Fair dance. Her new, figure-hugging dance clothes suddenly felt all the more uncomfortable.
It took Wynna a few steps before she noticed Tia wasn’t following her. “What’s wrong? Let’s get some food.”
“I just didn’t know…” She trailed off. “I didn’t see any boys earlier.”
Wynna laughed, the first time her serious expression had broken. “Well, they live in a different section of the academy, of course! It wouldn’t be proper for us to live in the same dormitory. Did you really think that?”
She fought for words. Now she was both stumpy and an idiot.
“Hey, don’t be worried,” Wynna said after a few seconds. She took her by the arm and gave her a slight pull. “It’s not a big deal. Now let’s eat, I’m starving.”
Tia followed the girl toward a table in the back, conscious that her nervous, shrinking posture was making her stand out. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but sneak a few glances under her eyelashes at the older boys they passed. A shiver raced through her as her eyes fell on defined biceps rippling under close-fitting dance shirts. This truly was a whole new world.
They arrived at a table of older girls. Most wore the same dark brown uniform, with a few students in dark reds or greens scattered among the rest. She took a guess that everyone of the same age wore the same color. The girls greeted Wynna, then all looked at Tia with curiosity. She wilted under their attention. What was she supposed to say? Was one of these girls going to be sent home because of her?
Wynna came to her rescue. “Food first, introductions second,” she said, then took a seat at the bench, patting the space next to her as an indication for Tia to sit. Tia flashed Wynna a quick, grateful smile, who saw it and shrugged it off, all while helping herself to a heaping bowl of oatmeal and berries. Maybe she wanted to relieve Tia of an awkward situation, or maybe she was just that famished and didn’t want introductions to keep her from breakfast.
Wynna had only bought Tia a minute’s reprieve, though. As soon as she finished loading a bowl with oatmeal, the girls around her swarmed with conversation.
“Where are you from? I’m from Erheath originally. Fenlick? Gods, that’s far. You’re not Mirish, are you?”
“Master Maaj himself fetched you here? It was my mam who brought me here when I was ten—told her I’d run away to be a contortionist in the circus if Da kept with the drink. She thought dance would be more respectable. Lucky they were looking to replace someone!”
“You must’ve met Mistress Oerfall already, right?” An eye roll. “Did she give you the rundown on how the academy is your family, friends, past, present, and future too?” Laughter bubbled around the group at Tia’s shy nod.
She tried her best to remember everyone’s names, but everything was blurring together in her mind. Scraping up the dregs of her oatmeal, she took a look around the room. The students mostly segregated themselves by age—younger students in pastel uniforms in one area and slightly older students wearing jewel tones in another. Opposite their own table was another group of older students, all wearing the same darker, subdued hues. With a start, she recognized the same girl from before with the ebony hair and silver comb, and this time noticed the dark brown of her uniform. Tia stared a second too long, causing the girl with the comb to sense her gaze. The girl looked up, and they locked eyes. If there had been any questions of the girl’s feelings before, those could now be laid aside. The girl’s face, delicate and lovely though it was, twisted into a glare that could not be misunderstood.
“Who’s that?” she whispered to Wynna, nodding slightly towards the girl.
“That would be who I mentioned earlier,” Wynna said under her breath. “Selitta d’Wygst.”
She gaped. “d’Wygst? So she must be…”
“Lord Irwin d’Wygst’s oldest daughter.”
“Gods above,” Tia said, though some of the bog runners’ more creative curses also sprang to mind. The Mirish weren’t known for curbing their language.
Wygst was a large, bustling port city on Haplyr’s southern coast, just east of the unpredictable ocean currents that made sea voyages between Haplyr and Corim an impossibility. Anyone with the last name d’Wygst would be related to the city’s ruling lord.
Perfect. Stumpy, an idiot, and now enemies with a lord’s daughter.
“No time to worry about it now, I’m afraid,” Wynna said, interrupting Tia’s spiraling thoughts. “It’s time for class.”
They hustled into the dance studio just in time for the chiming of seventh hour. Like Wynna had said, there were thirty students in the class—fifteen boys and girls each—but the studio was more than spacious enough for everyone. This was no dusty, cramped shop attic, barely big enough for one dancer. The room was outfitted with the same supportive wooden flooring she’d noticed the night before. The planks creaked under the students’ weight—an oddly friendly sound, as if the studio itself were wishing the dancers good morning.
But it was the mirrors that stole her breath away. One entire wall of the studio was covered in mirrors, stretching from floor to ceiling. Mirrors, even small handheld looking glasses, were costly and difficult to make as well as easily broken, so they tended to be reserved for the wealthy. The patrons of the Royal Dance Theater were generous with their wealth indeed.
The teacher, a bony, older woman garbed in loose black clothes, swiftly ascertained she had a new pupil and came over to introduce herself as Mistress Primbuck. Since it was Tia’s first day, the dance mistress said she could stand in the back of the class and try to keep up as best she could. Tia turned to the mirror as the dance mistress marched to the front of the studio and clapped her hands to start the class.
The students had spaced themselves out in the mirror and were launching into a complex stretching routine. Positioned at the back of the room, her urge to hide behind someone else was strong. But then how was she to see herself? How was she to get better? Stifling a grimace, she scooted into an open space in the mirror, squared her shoulders, and faced her reflection.
And felt the tension in her body slowly melt away. Surrounded by the other tenth-years, she looked like she belonged. She squinted, double-checking her lack of stumpiness.
A snap of the fingers from Mistress Primbuck broke her reverie. Time to get to work.
As they moved through the morning stretches, Tia’s eyes kept being drawn to Selitta d’Wygst, or rather to the back of her head. The girl’s silver comb was brilliant in the morning sunlight cascading through the high windows, and with every head movement it winked in the light, dazzling Tia’s eyes. An elegant accessory—but now just an annoying eyesore.
But it soon became apparent that Selitta’s choice of hair accessories weren’t the only thing that stood out about the girl. She was as flexible as the rest of the class, but there was a rushed clumsiness to her movements, like a marionette doll being plopped into position by its puppeteer.
Wynna’s precision stood in stark contrast to Selitta’s haste. She’d chosen a spot closest to the mirror, studying her reflection with a serious, ravenous expression. Tia caught other students glancing towards Wynna every so often to remind themselves of the next movement; she was obviously one of the better tenth-year students.
Mistress Primbuck wandered around the room watching her students with the darting, observant eyes of a hawk. Here and there she would adjust a student’s positioning or simply give a body part a sharp tap—an unspoken challenge for the student to fix the problem themselves. Tia observed the dance mistress spend a good minute going through several different corrections with Selitta before giving a slight, frustrated shake of her head and moving on.
After an hour of stretching, the dance mistress called a short break to allow a string quartet to set up in a corner of the studio. A ball of worry began to gather in Tia’s stomach. Now that they were moving into the actual dancing, was this the moment everyone would notice her “unconventional” style, as Master Maaj had put it?
They began first with slower routines, to warm each muscle and prevent injury. Even in the first few counts, Tia could already spot painful, glaring differences between her movements and the rest of the class. The other students’ movements looked showy and audacious: here an exaggerated flick of the wrist and there a forcing of the ankle into an unnatural position. Where was their delicacy? Where was their subtlety? She tried imitating them but felt like she was performing a caricature of a dance routine instead of actually dancing. As the quartet played on, she found herself slipping back into her old habits out of frustration, but felt a tremor of embarrassment when she caught a handsome boy with gray eyes looking at her reflection for a moment. She took a steadying breath and began copying the other students again.
They were practicing backbends when Mistress Primbuck’s sharp eyes landed on Tia. She strode over to her and without saying a word began to tap and prod her this way and that, like a sculptor working a hunk of clay.
“And practice that twenty times,” the dance mistress instructed her when she was finally satisfied. Bending in and out of the backbend, Tia felt a sudden, unexpected pang of sadness. Part of the strangeness of the past hour wasn’t just that she was a fledgling academy student. Master Maaj had said she’d perfected her own dance, and he’d been right. But the dancers in the room were only allowed to express an image the dance mistress already had in her mind.
The routines picked up in speed and complexity, leaving her breathless. How did they manage such precision? The faster the strings played, the heavier her limbs felt, as if she’d strapped metal weights to her limbs.
She was about ready to collapse in a heap on the floor by the time the strings harmonized on a final note. The dance mistress clapped her hands and called for a short break to a chorus of glad, tired sighs, then exited the room.
Most of the students took to the floor to stretch and chat with their friends during the downtime. Wynna waved to Tia in the mirror, beckoning her over. Legs shaking, she made her way to the front of the room.
“How do you like it so far?” Wynna asked.
“Mistress Primbuck seems…” She trailed off.
“Stern?” Wynna supplied. Tia laughed. “She’s really not—she just hates people who daydream their way through class. I’m going to get some water, but try working on something during the breaks. If she sees you doing that, you’ll be on her good side.”
So much for taking a break. Tia wiped the sweat from her brow and began practicing backbends again as Wynna left the studio.
It took a moment for her to realize the room had grown quiet. Selitta was walking her way, and all eyes in the room were glued to the unfolding scene.
“What’s the name of Wyn’s new friend?” Selitta asked, her loud voice amplified by the large studio space. She came to a halt and looked Tia up and down, lip curled, before continuing. “Can’t find your tongue? No matter—I’d be surprised if you last a week, so there’s no point bothering with introductions.” Her blue eyes drilled into Tia. “Looks like you haven’t have realized it yet, but at the academy we strive for grace. Clomping around in the back of the room pretending you fit in won’t get you far.” A few nervous giggles echoed around the room.
A bubble of rage floated up inside her, begging to be voiced, but she couldn’t will her mouth to open. Selitta leaned in and spoke in an exaggerated whisper, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Besides, I can still smell the bog on you. You should run home to Fenlick while they’ll still have you back. You certainly don’t belong here.” Her eyes were triumphant as Tia’s cheeks blushed a splotchy red.
Say something! she screamed in her mind. Don’t let her do this in front of everyone!
“I-I—” The angry words in her head wouldn’t come out. “Don’t—”
“I think her dancing is charming,” interrupted an unfamiliar voice. There were a few intakes of breath around the room at the interjection, and Tia whipped her head around to see the male dancer who’d been looking at her in the mirror earlier. His hair was a tangle of dark brown curls, endearing in its messiness, and his tanned skin was ruddy from the morning’s exercise. She could not keep her eyes from flicking down for a second to strong biceps. Her heart was still hammering out a wild rhythm in her chest, though she had a sense that the reason why had just shifted.
Piercing gray eyes lingered on her face for a beat longer than necessary, then slid over to Selitta. “It’s done,” he said to her. “Don’t you get it? You can’t keep up, and Master Maaj doesn’t want you in the company, so get ready for the journey home. And when you get there, maybe some poor fool will take you for a spin at a cotillion and find your dancing just remarkable enough to make further inquiries. Gods know you don’t have anything else weighing in your favor.”
Shaking with rage, Selitta opened her mouth to retort when a loud cough made everyone swing around. Mistress Primbuck had re-entered the studio, and the dance mistress was looking at her students with a look of distaste. Wynna stood just behind her, eyes darting from Tia to Selitta to the gray-eyed boy, obviously trying to figure out what had happened in her absence.
The dance mistress spoke, her voice icy. “When I call for a break, I expect to see everyone ready for class to continue when I return. That does not include petty infighting.” Her eyes narrowed as she stared them all down. Tia lowered her eyes. There went her chances at making a good first impression.
Casting them all a final glower, the dance mistress clapped her hands, and the dancers scurried to take their places. Tia started to move toward the back of the studio but felt a tug on her arm. She turned to find herself face to face with the male dancer.
“Don’t listen to her,” he said, gray eyes gleaming. “I meant what I said—your dancing is charming. No clomping that I can see.” He released her arm after a moment more. Tia’s mind was awhirl. For the rest of class she did her best to concentrate, but somehow she found it much more interesting to sneak glances at the dancer with the gray eyes.